Playing With Fire

by Mick Lloyd-Owen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & G & lt;/span & lass: the silent instrument through which light sings its vibrant song. Found in nature as austere obsidian, it can be made as clear as a dewdrop, creamy white, rich hues of earth, or any color of the rainbow. Ancient, modern, timeless, its form is limited only by the bounds of imagination.

Glass has been in utilitarian servitude to humans for millennia as common goblets, pitchers, jars and bowls. As art, it graces grand cathedrals in the form of brilliant windows, like majestic portals between heaven and earth. In skillful hands, it can be coaxed by fire to form the delicate wings of a butterfly, the fragile petals of flowers, a plump and stubborn paperweight, or a lampshade, swirled like ice cream forever captured in the act of melting.

Made primarily of silica, glass occurs naturally from volcanoes and when lightning strikes sand. Obsidian, during the Stone Age, was commonly fashioned into weapon tips and cutting tools. While probable that man first discovered glass by accident, the most reliable research, according to National Geographic, indicates that it was first made more than 4,000 years ago in the region known today as Iraq and Syria. An ancient cuneiform text from ancient Mesopotamia reads: "Take 60 parts sand, 180 parts ashes from sea plants, five parts chalk, heat them all together, and you will get glass."

In ancient Egypt, glass beads were made, (just as they are today) by carefully winding ribbons of molten glass around a metal wire. They were highly valued in trade. The Egyptians also made vessels by drizzling hot, syrupy glass around a core of clay, which was later dug out. Laborious and tedious, this method kept production relatively scarce, and the items valuable. Later, in the first century B.C., the Romans discovered that hot glass, like clear, glowing taffy wound on to the end of a steel tube, could be blown into balloons and shaped. They blew it into molds, and glass production changed forever. "For drinking vessels, glass has quite superseded the use of silver and gold," wrote Pliny the Elder, a first-century Roman scholar. Conceptually, little has changed since.

"The tools are really simple and haven't changed at all," says veteran glass artist Steve Adams, a resident of Spokane's "Vinegar Flats" neighborhood. "A Roman from 2,000 years ago could walk into a modern glass shop and recognize everything. He could sit down and go right to work."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & dams, who studied architecture and art at the University of Idaho, was in on the embryonic glass-art studio movement of the late 1960s. Happening upon a rusted home-made kiln in a junk pile outside the ceramics shop at the university, he noticed it was glazed on the bottom. An art student several years beforehand had fashioned it after seeing two men blowing glass in the garage of a museum, but had abandoned the effort when he couldn't make it work. Adams, who had fallen in love with stained glass through his architectural studies, adopted the forsaken little furnace and began experimenting. According to Adams, there were only two books in the library on the subject; the newer one was from 1920. Virtually no information was available on the subject of glass blowing, a form of knowledge consigned only to factories. The idea of glass as art was in its infancy.

Adams is now one of the very few artists in the region to have a furnace-equipped private studio. He built it himself, and he uses the exhaust to heat his home and studio in the winter. Generating half a million BTUs, the furnaces are voracious consumers of energy. And once they're loaded with glass, they can't be turned off; they must remain ablaze for the duration of production. (In Adams case, that's winter.)

While something as simple as a glass bead can be created on a countertop with a gas torch -- the curious are advised to take a lesson before trying, due to the obvious hazards -- aspiring artists in the Inland Northwest who want to learn glass-blowing have few options. The equipment is expensive and may require a special permit to install. A glass workshop also requires good ventilation. Energy costs are high, and business models that require product sales to cover costs can be difficult or impossible for an artist to manage alone.

To remedy this situation, William Hagy, who formerly studied with Adams, established the nonprofit Northwest Glass Society. While public studios of its kind have proven popular in larger metropolitan areas like Seattle, it's the first of its kind in Spokane.

"It's hard for an individual to make it on their own," Hagy says.

Hagy, who has 15 years of experience with glass, was crafting beads in the back of a van before truncating his studies at the University of Montana to move to Spokane. For six years, until earlier this year, he was an instructor at Spokane Art School. He has learned from several artists but describes himself as mostly self-taught.

"I was struggling to get a public studio to Spokane," he says. "If you look at the local colleges, it's not there." And so the Northwest Glass Society was created in the summer of 2005.

At a recent open-house event at the studio in Spokane Valley, a wine-sipping crowd of all ages jostled for space in the small gallery and in the large workshop behind it while several NGS members demonstrated bead-making. Transfixed by the glowing rods made pliable by hissing blue jets from gas torches, several tried their unsteady hands at crafting beads. Hagy, while carrying on a monologue about the nuances and characteristics of his medium, worked tubes in the bright flame, stretching them this way and that with familiar ease, while onlookers awaited the brief and climactic blowing of a bubble destined to become a goblet.

Presently, the studio facilitates lamp-work (so called because it used to be done with an oil lamp fanned by a foot-operated bellows), which includes casting, bead-making, sculpturing and blowing from solid glass. Hagy says that fund-raisers are planned for a soft-glass furnace. He is tentatively hoping for one by late summer of 2007. So far, the society has about 30 members of all skill levels, including several who do gallery-caliber work.

"I have people driving all the way down here from Kettle Falls because they can't afford to heat their own studio to do their own work," Hagy says. "They just pay for bench time, and that helps them out, as well as being able to work on larger projects that they can't do in their garage. It puts them in a professional atmosphere."